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Free Debate • Splitter • Marks’ Manifesto • Russell Reaching Wilson’s Peak • Complementary Letters • Warning Signs • Memorybox • Still God Bothered

Free Debate

Dear Editor: Reading Michael Hauskeller’s article on Buridan’s Ass in PN 81, I was struck once again how arguments concerning free will always tend to beg the question by being expressed in language which implicitly relies on the existence of that which is to be established. Thus Professor Hauskeller bases his argument on ‘choices’ and ‘reasons for choices’, concepts in which free will is already embedded.

Since becoming a committed determinist, I no longer see myself as the originator of my actions or the author of my fate. I am an actor following a script which unfolds according to the dictates of the causal nexus. I am a spectator, watching my own thoughts and actions. When I make ‘choices’, I find myself watching myself respond to thoughts that come from I know not where. So I express Hauskeller’s story of choosing a dish in a restaurant rather differently.

I sit in the restaurant, perusing the menu. The thought happens to come to me, ‘I fancy the spinach tart.’ Then the thought happens to come to me, ‘No, I think I fancy the asparagus.’ Then the thought happens to come to me, ‘Or shall I have the spinach tart?’ Then the thought happens to come to me, ‘I don’t know what to have!’ Then my wife says, “Come on, Dave, make a choice. The waiter’s waiting.” (As waiters do.) Then the thought happens to come to me, ‘Oh, I’ll have the asparagus then.’ I expect there are reasons for all these thoughts; in such a trivial matter, it hardly matters what they are. But, described as I describe it, I don’t see where free will comes into it.

Dave Mangnall, Wilmslow

Dear Editor: ‘Buridan’s Ass’ has always intrigued me, but I am uncomfortable with Professor Hauskeller’s analysis. He takes a well-known narrative which has implied parameters, but then he moves the goal posts by introducing an impossible proposition. He concludes that Buridan’s Ass, which cannot choose between two equal bales of hay, cannot decide because he is “frozen in time” since in reality bales of hay would alter with time so one would become more desirable and the Ass would be relieved of his dilemma. Yes. But suppose that the bales of hay really did not alter, or altered simultaneously – a very unlikely situation, but more likely than time freezing. The donkey would still be unable to decide, and would die of starvation and thirst in three or four weeks because he lacks the free will to make a free choice and save himself. He also lacks the intelligence to see what is happening to him. Is this why the donkey has replaced the dog which was the subject of Aristotle’s original telling of this tale?

Michael E M Cook, Exeter


Dear Editor: I was reading the article ‘Could Two People Inhabit One Body?’ by Nicola Webber in Issue 81, and thought of various situations that would challenge her theory, or at least generate complications. There was no overlapping either of the identity of the one-body inhabitants called Amanda or Lucy in the article, or of the particular life for each person. Now let’s imagine that Amanda has started dating a man called Rick. One day Rick decides to call Amanda for a romantic meal, and it just happens that he phones her when Lucy is occupying their shared body and does not reply. How would Amanda respond to him when he confronts her about this when she is back? Or to make things more interesting, imagine that in an airport one day Rick sees Lucy boarding a plane for Paris with another man. He first thinks that he is seeing things, or that he is becoming obsessed, until he sees that Lucy has a mole on her face identical to Amanda’s. He hears her talking to the other man, and it’s the same voice, but he’s so phased by the situation that he does not confront her then. But Rick, being the over-reactive type of person, decides to take Amanda onto a TV show, where he shows photographic evidence of her with the other man. Yet the lie detector shows that Amanda is telling the truth when she says she never met that man. Who would be telling the truth in this case? It would be a paradoxical situation. To make the situation even more challenging, imagine Lucy is a serial killer, and that the man that Rick saw her with was her next victim. How would Amanda deal with the court case when the forensics track her (body) down? She again would show in the polygraphic test that she was telling the truth, but how would she explain her location on the day the murder took place, considering that she had no recollection or evidence of that time? I don’t know the conclusion from dealing with such a dilemma, but it would make one hell of a philosophical soap Operah!

Alan Rolle, Portugal

Marks’ Manifesto

Dear Editor: I congratulate Joel Marks for abandoning the idea that morality is either an eternal set of principles which we apprehend by logic, or a gift from some god or goddess. I agree with him that morality is nothing more than the rules we agree to live by in order to share our social space amicably and peacefully. However, I disagree with his conclusion that we should thus all stop using the terminology of morality, including ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

We live together in societies, following the moral codes which are our own inventions. They are indeed inventions; but the fact that something is a human invention does not mean that it is lacking in substance or significance. Many of the most important aspects of our lives derive from practices and social institutions our ancestors invented and which are now second nature to us. The languages that we use to to describe objects or events and to analyse the world are all human inventions. Language is so central to our lives that our brains and larynxes have evolved to give us facility with it. Other examples of crucial human inventions are our arts, sciences, sports and technologies.

The Highway Code is [the name in Britain for] a set of rules which we have invented to enable us all to use a shared road space safely and efficiently: ‘No overtaking on blind bends’ and ‘Do not drive drunk’ are rules which we made up for that purpose. They were not given to us by any spirit in the sky, nor were they discovered a priori by a process of logic. We made them up for a practical purpose. Likewise, we made up the rules of our moral codes to enable us all to share the wider social space. To call it a ‘myth’ would be quite misleading. It is a social fact. You cannot give up on the Highway Code if you want to use the roads we share. It’s a human invention, but a practical necessity. Fortunately, it is also not set in stone, and therefore any rules which we find to be faulty can be rewritten. Thanks to our democratic system of government, complaints about particular rules can be brought to a public forum and, if the complaint gathers majority support, the legislation can be changed.

Just as you cannot give up the Highway Code if you want to use the roads, so you cannot give up our moral code, as expressed in our laws, if you want to live in this society. So it would be wrong to describe yourself as an ‘amoralist’, as if the rules do not apply to you. The moral rules apply to everyone, just as the Highway Code applies to all drivers. If you get drunk and then drive your car, the police officer will not ask if you believe in the Highway Code. He will arrest you, and the courts will ban you from driving. If you have killed or injured someone, you will be sent to gaol. And serve you right! So, Joel, please do not consider yourself to be an amoralist, and do not drive drunk.

Les Reid, Belfast

Dear Editor: The problem with Joel Marks’ ‘An Amoral Manifesto Part 2’ in PN 81 is that, ultimately, his justification for his position seems to come down to a personal Damascene moment which led him to moral eliminativism. When he says that he finds it “more apt and more useful simply to say that morality does not exist (other than as a myth)”, it sounds more like a personal preference and, therefore, difficult to argue against. All I can say is “I disagree,” and that is the end of the matter. One might compare it with Samuel Johnson kicking a stone to refute Bishop Berkeley.

However, there are parts of the article against which one could argue. For example he gives two main reasons for dropping our ingrained way of speaking about ethics: truth and desirability. Yes to the first – if Joel is right about morality, then it would seem logical to drop our old terms and adopt new ones. But no to the second, because it is truth that matters, not if something is desirable.

Furthermore, whether or not Kantianism and Unitarianism are ‘metaphysical’ in nature, they are, with all their faults, understandable and workable. They are imperfect (as are scientific theories), but that does not make them mythical or non-existent. On the other hand, it would probably be impossible to prove that we are ultimately “moved solely by desire” as Joel claims. Is this not itself a metaphysical claim? It would be very difficult to prove that people never acted altruistically independent of their desires. Altruism seems to have an existence in the empirical world, both in theory and in action, and on some accounts an altruistic disposition provides a reason to act morally. I refute amorality thus, as Dr Johnson might have said.

Dick Bellringer, Salisbury

Dear Editor: I read Prof. Marks’ recent advocacy of amorality in Issues 80 and 81 with equal measures of amusement and sadness. At first I wondered if his piece was a well-constructed spoof, but then realised he was advocating, or better, attempting to advocate, a newly held conviction. I was recently asked by a friend to give my view of a book he esteemed highly, and replied that my problems with the book began on the title page. Regarding part 2 of Prof. Marks’ essay, my problems began a little later, with the fifth sentence, especially the statement, unargued, simply assumed, “Morality’s main reason for being is group cohesion.” Prof. Marks proceeds to defend his recent conversion to amorality from this unargued premise. This may be the Kantian explanation, but is it true? The question I would ask the Professor is this: How do you explain the existence of moral categories (right and wrong) in every civilization, past and present? And moreover, from a Christian perspective such as I have, morality’s main reason for being is not group cohesion but the glory of the Creator, who made us in his image. Such revealed morality, as spelled out in Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’, may lead to group cohesion, but often it led (and continues to lead) to group disunity, as people rebel against that revealed will.

No matter how hard the Professor tries, no amount of philosophical gymnastics can rescue amorality from charges of egoism and relativism. Wherever amorality prevails in a society, the weak are endangered, the poor are marginalised, the unborn are aborted, and children are exposed to unspeakable dangers. This may not commend itself as a philosophically-sophisticated statement, but reality always trumps philosophy.

Ian Hamilton, Cambridge

Russell Reaching Wilson’s Peak

Dear Editor: I found the article ‘Can we be happy?’ by Kathleen O’Dwyer in Issue 80 of particular interest, as Bertrand Russell obviously came to the same conclusions reached by Colin Wilson, that ‘being busy’ and ‘seeing everything as interesting’ can make people happy. Colin Wilson has also done breakthrough happiness research on ‘peak experiences’, serotonin (mainly generated in sunlight, and so in deficit to most civilized people ever since the Industrial Revolution forced them to spend more time inside) and ‘Factor X’. Many dismiss Colin Wilson’s work, but an advanced science can appear magical until, via testing, the work proves valid. George Soros reached the same conclusions about the nature of reality and reflexivity many years after Wilson. My own experiments with Factor X shows that happiness is available to all by simply having more sunshine, interesting hobbies, lots of Omega 3, and a mind open to the moments of pure bliss in our everyday lives.

Jason Palmer, Dublin

Complementary Letters

Dear Editor: The article ‘Complementarity & Reality’ by Sir Alistair MacFarlane in Issue 80 coincided with my reading Quantum by Manjit Kumar, in which I first read about the Complementarity Principle fathered by Niels Bohr. Bohr a rrived at the principle by studying the works of Kierkegaard, Hoffding and James – philosophers who wrote about the complementarity in human thought and its applications. I was so taken by the concept that I had to read anything I could on the subject, including ‘The Roots of Complementarity’ by Gerald Holton. One thing that article didn’t identify as a root of complementarity is the human mind; but the human mind is the chief source, since it is itself constructed in a complementary manner, through two complementary hemispheres. If we didn’t have this brain complementarity we couldn’t function.

MacFarlane writes that the complementarity principle “has not yet played a major role in philosophy.” But philosophy has many complementary attributes. To start, its accumulated knowledge, when engaged, unearths complementaries such as dualities, paradoxes and contradictions, which in turn uncover other complementarities such as dialectical thinking. Kant couldn’t have reached his momentous insights without drawing on complementary sources, for example, Berkeley and Rousseau, nor without complementarity philosophizing. And philosophy gets its unavoidably complementarity nature from its origin and conversing partner, the human brain.

Philosophy may not outwardly display its complementarity skills, but through history it has searched out and brokered tangible complementarity usages, culminating in practical and successful complementary means of governance and of dealing with the human condition. One reason we philosophize is to reach satisfactory but complementary conclusions.

Philosophy without complementarity would be akin to a lover without passion.

David Airth, Toronto

Dear Editor: In his Issue 80 piece ‘Complementarity & Reality’, Sir Alistair MacFarlane writes, “The idea of using two distinct, but equally necessary, attributes to describe a single entity arose in quantum mechanics.” Yet we should not forget that Laozi anticipated Niels Bohr by more than 2,500 years. Consider Chapter Eleven from the Dao De Ching:

Thirty spokes join the wheel’s hub,
and the hole gives it purpose.
Fashion a cup from clay,
and gain service from its emptiness.
A room is built with doors and windows,
and its spaces make it useful.
Thus wealth is found in existence,
But meaning is found in nonexistence.

Likewise, the Principle of Complementarity as applied to ontology [being] is known as T’ai Chi – the encircled Yin and Yang of Daoist philosophy. Many of Sir Alistair’s conclusions are, no doubt, buried deep within the Dao De Ching.

Before the British Raj, British East India Company adventurers considered India backward and in need of their civilizing influence, only to discover that the Mahabharata is as ancient as Homer and ten times longer than the Illiad and the Odyssey combined. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the Tudor Dynasty, China was the world’s most advanced civilization. In today’s geopolitical climate, it behoves us in the West to know the Chinese as well as they know us.

James W. Williams

Elizabeth City, NC

Warning Signs

Dear Editor: In Issue 80 of Philosophy Now, Matt Randle provides a Warning that objects in photographs are not as real as they appear. This is probably something of which we always need to be aware, bearing in mind the pervasiveness and ubiquity of photographic images. Our world is “replete with signs that can and do deceive us and lie about the world’s condition,” (Blonsky) and we can easily be persuaded that “signs really are the things they claim to be” (Guiraud). Perhaps the warning needs to be given repeatedly and frequently, for many of us may be bamboozled. Developments in increasingly higher resolution photography can help to compound this.

However, the possibility of confusion between appearance and reality is not surprising, since many have found it necessary to try to clarify the distinction between representations and reality, at least since Plato’s consideration of mimesis in The Republic (which Randle acknowledges), and later throughout aesthetics. For example, Arnheim says in 1956: “representation never produces a replica of the object but its structural equivalent in a given medium.” It’s apt to recall Vasari’s record of viewer’s reactions to the Mona Lisa. They were apparently “amazed to find that it was as alive as the original.”

‘Reality’ is hardly a straightforward notion, and Randle acknowledges the “great deal of philosophical work” dedicated to elucidating what is real. For him, however, the ‘real’ problem concerns false images: the pernicious role photographs play in making appearances of reality “more significant, ie, meaningful, than reality itself.” In 1980, Wollheim supplied cogent arguments that representations make sense because we come to see the subject as it is represented.

As for Randle’s distinction between reality and its photographic appearance – ‘anamorphic reality’ – it would be helpful to know what notion of reality he has in mind. He refers to the Church’s initial opposition to a heliocentric universe, so his notion of reality is unlikely to be theistic. His allusions to Plato suggest it might be Idealist; but it could be positivist, empirical, noumenological, phenomenological, or perhaps a Social Construction. Perhaps it’s relativist, in which case no one version of reality is preferable to any other: all are essentially cultural constructions and there is nothing outside them – no ‘reality in itself’. We might then well ask the question: whosereality? What is real will be affected by the notion of reality obtaining at the time by whoever is making the comparison.

Reflecting on how a photograph in particular receives its meaning, Randle claims that we are fortunate in being able to turn to Jacques Derrida for guidance. We can also turn to other highly-focused and insightful contributions, including from Semiotics – from for example, Barthes, Berger, Eco, Guiraud, de Saussure, Sontag, Wollen… De Saussure gives us the potent analysis of the sign, comprising the signifier – the medium in which the sign is formed; and the signified – that which comes to our minds on viewing the sign; and the referent – that to which the sign refers in the ‘real’ world (if indeed there is a referent). To retain a handle on ‘reality’ and not muddle it with its photographic images, it’s helpful to keep in mind de Saussure’s distinctions. Take the case of a photo of a horse: the signifier is the photo, the signified is what comes to mind as you gaze at the photo, and the referent, the horse, is the thing that kicks you. More evocatively, in his Camera Lucida (1984), Barthes includes a photograph of Lewis Payne in 1865. Payne is in his prison cell, manacled and awaiting hanging. Beneath the photo Barthes includes the caption ‘He is dead and he is going to die’ – exemplifying the ‘there then, yet here now’ ontology of the photograph. “It is as if the photograph carries its referent with itself… every photograph is somehow co-natural with its referent” he writes.

Notwithstanding all this, it could also be suggested that Randle’s warning is something of an over-reaction, even anachronistic. These days the initiated are less likely to be deceived into thinking that photographs depict reality as it is. They know very well that the veracity of photographs is questionable, that they can be and are manipulated, for very many of us can and do do this ourselves.

Colin Brookes, Leicestershire


Dear Editor: I’m not convinced by Professor Tallis arguments in Issue 78 for why the difference between Kandel’s ‘memory in a dish’ and human memory cannot be explained by differences in the size and complexity of the respective nervous systems. The trouble begins with overlooking the difference between the hardware and software. I believe the point being made by Kandel is that the hardware in humans and the sea slug Aplysia is similar, and as such, the physical processes behind memory creation in humans are likely to resemble those in Aplysia. Clearly however, the software inherent in the human mind is vastly different to that of Aplysia, and as such we should not be surprised if the nature of our memories is also vastly different – that is, different in kind, not just in scale or complexity. (I don’t think this reference to software means I’ve smuggled consciousness into the argument, as Professor Tallis warns. I run highly complex software on my computer, but I don’t believe that makes my computer conscious.)

Our brains manipulate data. Data enters constantly via the senses, and is processed in various ways. One aspect of this is the creation of the mental image of our external reality that is presented to our conscious perception. Note that this is notjust like a movie in our heads. Our rendering of reality can draw on any of the raw data available to the brain, including anything previously recorded (memories), incoming sense data, internal feelings (eg, states of the endocrine system), and aspects of reality that are calculated rather than directly sensed, such as the approximate time, whether its light or dark outside etc, etc, etc. It is the information contained in this deeply rendered image of the present that has the potential to be subsequently stored as memory in the manner described for Aplysia. Of course no individual neural connection can represent a past event or have any temporal meaning, as Professor Tallis’ argument suggests – just as the physical states of bits inside a computer’s memory have no independent meaning in and of themselves. What is clearly true though, is that the brain can present deeply rendered images to our conscious perception that are derived from either ‘live’ data, ‘stored’ data, or ‘manufactured’ data – the latter being the output of software components designed to cast an eye to the future based on data available from the ‘stored’ past and ‘live’ present. It is easy to see how each of these possibilities can be tagged with contextual information, making clear to conscious perception what is past, present and future. So Tallis’s objections to a computational theory of memory simply do not hold up.

I certainly do not profess to understand consciousness. However, I do not find it necessary to assume its explanation must lie outside the laws of physics simply because I do not know how it works. The contents of our conscious experience is processed data, and we are well on our way to gaining a greater understanding of how this aspect of our mental life works. True, “a synapse does not contain its previous state” – but a network of synaptic connections can represent as ‘past’, information contained in past states of the conscious brain.

Toby Masters, Sydney, NSW

Still God Bothered

Dear Editor: Like Tibor Machan in Letters, Issue 79, I am interested in the debate about who has the burden of proof when considering the existence of God. We have reached opposing conclusions, however. I think the burden of proof is on those who claim that the divine being does not exist. Tibor’s example of the burden of proof resting on someone who claims that there are three- legged ducks on Mars, is not, I think, seriously comparable with the belief of millions of people in God. Many of them further claim to have experienced God, and some have been willing to die rather than recant. These people follow in the footsteps of many generations of believers. There are arguments supporting God’s existence: peoples’ faith in God does not diminish their rationality.

Rev Richard Martin, Strood

Dear Editor: Re Issue 78, Is God really Dead? I might be biased, but found the atheists’ arguments sound and easy to follow. On the other hand, the arguments put forth by the theists seemed confused and obscure, like short-circuited robots spluttering to speak. For example, Michael Anthony ignores the best historical, scientific and philosophical arguments, and tries to demote atheism to being similar to other unproven negatives like tea cups in space and sombreros in the Sombrero galaxy. Then he makes a giant leap by implying God is a ‘probable truth’; but he does this without providing any evidence to say how God is more probable than tea cups and sombreros in outer space. This misses the point of the original argument concerning the burden of proving that things don’t exist. Another example: Mr. Anthony uses an ‘infinity of prime numbers’ as an example of an unprovable negative. However, while there’s is no empirical evidence of gods whatsoever (only unconfirmed anecdotes), there is plenty of proof of prime numbers. To understand they are infinite, we simply need to understand Euclid’s algorithm.

The theists’ desperation becomes malevolent when Dr John Mabry, a Reverend no less, refers to the work of modern free thinkers as ‘atheist porn’. His calumny sounds like a defense mechanism, considering the child rape committed by priests around the world. Ironically, the Reverend’s claim of atheist porn is followed by Fr. Thomas Crean’s argument that religion is a force for good. However, as it was pointed out in an article by Victor Stenger, secular societies, such as Sweden and Denmark, enjoy some of the lowest crime rates in the world. The argument that one has to be religious to be good doesn’t hold any holy water. There are countless examples of both good and bad behavior coming from believers and nonbelievers alike. Thus, religiosity is not the defining variable. When it comes to virtue, all that matters is what one does or doesn’t do, based on good or bad intentions.

Jeff Harmsen, Newmarket, Ont

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